Over there: Nevada County historian visits World War I battlefields
When the armistice was signed at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918, signaling the end of The Great War, about 500 men and women from Nevada County were relieved that they could put their weapons down and think about their trip home.
It is in the spirit of these local men and women that Linda Jack, executive secretary of the Nevada County Historical Society, set off on a trip to Northern France to walk the same paths, stand under the same sky, and experience as much of the war as possible, all in the name of history.
“I was mostly in northeast France,” Jack said. “That was the part of France where the major offenses were going on in the summer and fall of 1918, primarily in Lorraine and Champagne, up north towards the Belgian border.”
Jack said her lifelong interest in history was especially piqued by the first World War for the fact it’s often overlooked. Though she has researched the war extensively, she feels that other subsequent conflicts have been given much more attention and study.
“I think it’s such an under-studied war, and it was forgotten within a couple of decades after it was over,” she said. “It’s not a modern phenomenon, but it did change the 20th century.”
Local historian and author Gage McKinney concurs.
“World War I changed the world and more specifically changed the way we think about the world,” McKinney said. “We are still living in the shadow of World War I. Europe had had relative peace for a hundred years and prosperity went with that peace.
“There was this idea of progress and World War I absolutely smashed that idea. No one could believe that things were just going to get better anymore. When you smash the idea of progress, it is a tremendous challenge to all of the values of Western culture. And that’s what World War I was.”
CLOSER TO THE STORY
Jack’s September trip was par for the course for the traveler and historian. She has traveled to faraway locations in the past to quench her thirst for knowledge, but her journey along the paths that were traversed by the men and women of The Great War took special meaning as she was searching for familiar names, graves, and records. In retrospect, she said she felt the trip was her “calling.”
“For this particular project, because I am working with real people that lived here (in Nevada County), I felt a sense of obligation to not do this superficially,” said Jack. “I am a huge believer that geography is history, and if you are on the ground and you can see the places where things happened it really helps you understand it. It’s hard to understand history just from a book.”
Jack said she wasn’t surprised that the trip took an emotional turn at several points. Walking through a small village of Exermont she and her travel companions from the historical society encountered a woman standing in the doorway of the church, watching the group with suppressed wonder.
“One of the members of the museum gave (the woman) a commemorative medal honoring the Armistice,” Jack explained, “and she started to cry. She was just moved that Americans were still remembering what they did in France. I was really touched by the experience. I think the memory loss is America’s, not Europe’s. I felt much closer to the story having been in France than I ever did here.”
The French are incredibly grateful to the Americans to this day, Jack said, and there are a number of World War I cemeteries and monuments in France in honor of all who made sacrifices in the grandest war the world had ever seen — up to that time. The problem, Jack realized, is that these landmarks are largely empty. Many tourists look to World War II points of interest like Normandy and Omaha Beach instead.
Jack returned to Nevada County, where she set out to help ensure that never again would the brave men and women who lent their hands to the war effort be forgotten.
In her efforts, Jack collaborated with her friends in the Nevada County Historical Society to create an installation called “Wake Up, America!” currently on display at the Rood Center in Nevada City.
The project is an extensive display of war posters and memorabilia, partnered with text written by McKinney, chronicling The Great War and the many contributions made by local residents. The project is funded by a grant from California Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Because we had so many people here who went to war, it just seemed like this was a good opportunity to tell that story,” said Jack. “So that’s how it started and we decided we would try to combine the big story of the war with the local story.”
Panel upon panel of World War I facts, art, and annals tell the war stories of county natives like William Hague, who was the managing director of the North Star Mine in Grass Valley
The Wake Up, America! project also tells the story of a rallied America, a country that in large part organized to fight their political enemies and restore peace to the world once again.
“We had a very active community in what is called war relief,” said Jack. “It was a very activist community, and largely woman-centered, primarily led by Francis Jones of Grass Valley, but also all of the important people in the community were engaged. They held fundraisers, they raised money, they met every week at the library. Instead of going into factories, they knitted socks and pajamas and basically sent tons of product over seas.”
Richard Hurley had a large part in creating and installing the Wake Up, America! project. An experienced museum curator, Hurley said that although 500 people may not sound like much, the population of Nevada County at the time was only around 15,000. It was common to know each and every local who joined the war effort.
“Everybody knew whoever went,” Hurley said. “It was your kids. It was your neighbor’s kids.”
When collecting items to go on display, Hurley said there were plenty of options, especially in terms of old war posters and leaflets.
“(President Woodrow) Wilson’s administration was the first administration in American history to have a modern propaganda department,” he said. “They ended up printing one poster for every three Americans.
“The Wilson administration would throw people in jail for speaking against the war. It was enforced locally. You would have committees to make sure everybody had an American flag in your window and if you didn’t they would want to know why.”
The photos and memorabilia in the exhibit are powerful reminders of the myriad sacrifices made by a town, a county, a nation, in a time of conflict. Jack is grateful for the chance to share what she has learned and pay proper homage to the Nevada County veterans of World War I.
“I think it’s to help understand this big horrible thing that happened to the world and then understand how our community fit into it,” she said. “Yes it was a horrible war, but our people tried to do what they thought was right and did their best once they got there.
“You might forget the war, but you shouldn’t forget the people who went to war.”
Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4231.
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